A former Mao-era Red Guard and daughter of a high-ranking People's Liberation Army (PLA) general has apologized over the killing of a teacher during the political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Song Binbin, daughter of veteran ruling Chinese Communist Party revolutionary Song Renqiong, said she felt an 'everlasting grief' over the beating to death of teacher Bian Zhongyun by her teenage pupils at the height of the chaos in 1966.
"Please allow me to express my everlasting grief and apologies to...Bian," Song, who is now 64, said during a tearful apology on a recent visit to her former school, official media said on Monday.
"I failed to protect leaders of the school, and this has been a source of lifelong pain and remorse," Song said.
In June 1966, Song authored a "big-character poster" denouncing the leadership of her school, which sparked mass political "struggle sessions" against teachers and administrators and culminated in Bian's death.
It is still unclear whether Song played a physical part in the killing, however.
"If we don't reflect on things, it is hard to get close to the truth," she told the Beijing News.
"I hope that all of those who made mistakes during the Cultural Revolution — all those who did harm to their teachers and classmates — can face themselves, reflect on the Cultural Revolution, ask for forgiveness, and achieve reconciliation."
China has yet to authorize any national event in memory of this period in the nation’s history, and many still bear privately the scars of a time when neighbors, colleagues, and families denounced, attacked, and even killed one another in a frenzy of mass political "struggle."
Beijing-based constitutional affairs scholar Yu Meisun said Song had been a powerful student leader during more than a decade of political in-fighting and summary justice sanctioned by late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and that her apology meant little in the context of continuing state-sponsored violence.
"The suffering that Bian Zhongyun went through is being re-enacted today," Yu said. "It has never stopped."
"An apology can't exist verbally; it must amount to a confession of a crime," he said.
"The so-called 10-year Cultural Revolution has never really ended, because there has been no [official apology], and neither has the anti-rightist movement."
Yu said state-sanctioned violence has simply changed its name.
"It's just that the way it's expressed is slightly different," he said. "It's the law of the jungle masquerading as politics."
Bian's widower Wang Jingyao has already spoken out publicly against Song's continued association as a high-profile alumna with the Beijing Normal College Girls' High School, saying her Red Guard armband was "soaked with his wife's blood."
Former Beijing University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao said Song's apology highlighted how politically sensitive any public mention of the Cultural Revolution has become in today's China.
"The Cultural Revolution has been a forbidden zone that no one can touch upon, whether in conversation, in academia, or in movies and television," Jiao said.
"How are we to pursue it? It's a political topic," he said.
Growing trend towards openness
He saw Song's apology as a precursor to more official expressions of regret from high-ranking Communist Party leaders. But he said Song had likely decided to follow a growing trend towards openness on the subject.
"It's a fairly enlightened trend, and I think the fact she has come out and apologized has to do with her very powerful family background," Jiao said.
"The red second generation have probably spotted overall trends of opinion among the new administration and in Chinese society as a whole," Jiao said.
U.S.-based Cultural Revolution expert Wang Youqin said Song's apology was an advance on that of Chen Xiaolu, a former Red Guard leader and the son of a legendary Communist military leader, who visited his former school in October to express remorse to teachers and staff who had been tortured and subjected to forced labor.
But she said it still fell far short of what is needed for a full reckoning with China's recent, and very violent, past.
"Song Binbin is a 'glorious alumna,' and her Red Guard armband is in a school display case," Wang said. "Wang Jingyao opposed this at the time, but they paid no attention."
She said Bian's body had been dumped unceremoniously on a truck without any covering and carted to a nearby cemetery for cremation.
"Anyone who tries to tell the truth about such things, the [school leadership] say they are making up stories," Wang said. She said Bian's death had precipitated a wave of violence in Beijing that summer.
"They set a bunch of high school students, Red Guards, to beat to death 1,772 ordinary Beijing residents with their fists and bludgeons," Wang said.
"They also designated 10,000 Beijing residents 'enemies of the people'...which is two percent of Beijing's population," she said.
Nothing to their names
According to Wang's research, those 10,000 people were expelled from the capital with nothing to their names, and ended up in the countryside or died along the way.
"No one has ever brought up their suffering in formal discussions of history," she said.
The Cultural Revolution has been officially labeled a "mistake of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four, who launched the initial 1966 campaign against "capitalist roader" officials.
In the ensuing mayhem, qualified professionals like teachers and doctors were locked up in “cow pens,” while schools and universities were closed and health services fell into disarray under the supervision of "revolutionaries."
While the true number of casualties remains unconfirmed to this day, Southern Weekend quoted official statistics as saying that 1,772 people died nationwide in the violence, which was encouraged by then supreme leader Mao Zedong, the "Red Sun" of the era.
Recent research in the southern city of Shantou alone has shown that 100,000 people were accused as criminals, more than 4,500 were injured or disabled, and some 400 people died.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.